Firefighters from west-central Florida confront a wall of flame to save a North Florida town.
Published May 13, 2007|Updated May 14, 2007

When Wayne Henderson pulled into the small North Florida town of Theressa on Tuesday evening, he called his wife, Joanie, back home in Plant City.

"I'm in the mouth of the dragon," he told her.

Henderson, 60, was one of eight west-central Florida firefighters with First Tanker Strike Team assigned to beat back flames along County Road 21B, near the head of a fire that had consumed thousands of acres in Bradford and Alachua counties.

The goal was simple: Don't let the monster cross the road.

So through smoke and ash, the men put everything they had into keeping the fire in place, to protect Theressa and stop the spread.

And they did.

"There were times when it looked like it was raining embers," said Capt. Vince Kelley, who led the strike team.

They took up positions between the safe side of the road and the side in flames.

Several small fires cropped up on the safe side, and a few sheds burned up, but the team and others from across the state contained them and had the wildfire mostly controlled by Friday evening.

The firefighters from Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties returned home with smoke-filled memories.

"I've been in structure fires that were dangerous," said Henderson, who came back to Tampa on Saturday afternoon. "But this magnitude is indescribable."

He said the team once confronted a 40-foot wall of fire advancing toward them "like a train."

"If you turned around to have a conversation and the wind picked up, it would be right on you," the 32-year veteran said. "This was the worst I've ever seen."

"It was a situation that you had to pay close attention to," Kelley said.

At times the smoke became so thick that firefighters could see no more than 5 feet. Radio and cell phone communications were spotty. Wind gusts carried the fire over wide plow lines and across roads.

The people of Theressa were thankful, Henderson said. He once approached a little boy who was drinking a root beer. Henderson joked that if that was iced tea, he would steal it.

A few minutes later, a woman brought out a pitcher of iced tea.

On Saturday, as the crew unpacked bags and washed equipment at Hillsborough Fire Rescue headquarters in Tampa, Henderson held his grandson, Joshua, who had taped a note to the window of his grandmother's sport utility vehicle.

"Welcome home Papa," the 6-year-old wrote.

"We're just glad to have them back," said Joanie, Henderson's wife.

Asked what his plans were, Henderson said he was longing to go home and relax with some scotch.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (813) 661-2443.